Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

I'd never heard of Ethel Lina White until early last year, on holiday in Tasmania with my lovely and talented friend, Christina of Baehrly Reading. On a previous Tasmanian holiday, Christina had introduced me to what became a favourite vintage movie, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. This time, I found Christina reading a thriller picked up on a whim on discount at a local newsagency--Ethel Lina White's 1933 novel Some Must Watch. That was a brilliant, taut little suspense thriller with an understated but unmistakeable Christian theme. Quite impressed with this book, Christina looked up the author to discover that it was one of her novels, The Wheel Spins, which had been filmed as The Lady Vanishes.

When, therefore, Christina alerted me to the presence of some other Ethel Lina White books on Project Gutenberg Australia, I rushed off and quickly read The Wheel Spins. It was great.

Like the movie made from it, The Wheel Spins tells the story of a young woman, Iris Carr in the novel, a socialite on holiday in an out-of-the-way corner of Eastern Europe, who on the train home makes the acquaintance of a sprightly English governess, only to wake from a nap to find that the lady has (ahem) vanished, apparently without a trace! When everyone on the train, from the fellow-passengers sitting next to Miss Froy in the same compartment to passing acquaintances in the dining-car, claim never to have heard of or even seen Miss Froy, Iris finds herself in the middle of a nightmare. Is Miss Froy real, the victim of a far-reaching conspiracy? Or is Iris herself going mad?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Wheel Spins. It probably suffered in my estimation from having been spoiled by the film--some of the suspense was lost, and I think the film was a bit wittier, and ended on a higher note. On the other hand, the book includes a fair bit of background material which took the story from enjoyable to memorable.

One of those things is the far richer characterisation, including several characters who never made it into the movie at all, like the vicar and his wife. Best of all are Miss Froy's elderly parents (and their dog, Sock), who throughout the plot's vicissitudes wait and look forward to their beloved daughter's safe return--interludes that might not add much to the plot, but certainly demonstrate what is at stake in this middle-aged governess's safe return to her home.

I might add an interlude of my own here and say that recently, having read and enjoyed Rachel Heffington's classic-style cozy murder mystery Anon, Sir, Anon, I formulated a bit of a theology of cozy mysteries:

One of the things that struck me about Anon, Sir, Anon was how much the understated Christianity contributed to the coziness of the setting--God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world. Ethel Lina White's book Some Must Watch was a bit less cozy and a bit more terrifying, but in that book the terror stemmed from the villain's ruthless Darwinist worldview (and yes, it's a book about eugenics, in 1933) while the heroine represented faith in God and Providence. And, in Anon, Sir, Anon, there's a definite sense of sin about the murder and danger that occurs.

So that's what I like about both that book and Ethel Lina White's: they aren't just mysteries being solved by plucky young girls who are targeted by sinister killers. They're about the incursion of a cruel and fiendish force upon the order, kindness, and gentleness of Christendom. That's what makes them both cozy, and that's what makes them both suspenseful.

This expression of the antithesis between good and evil comes out loud and clear in The Wheel Spins. Like so many of the novels written by Christians in the early 1900s, it eulogises the passing of the first Christendom: "They're part of an England that is passing away," Miss Froy says of two fellow-travellers who remind one of Castle Gay's Aunt Harriet. "Well-bred privileged people, who live in big houses, and don't spend their income. I'm rather sorry they're dying out...I feel that nice leisured people stand for much that is good. Tradition, charity, national prestige."

But perhaps my favourite thing about The Wheel Spins was the character arc of its heroine, whose lonely ordeal as Miss Froy's champion transforms her from a shallow and self-centred youngster into someone who is willing to defy the whole world for the sake of someone she has learned to care about, other than herself.

In Ethel Lina White, I feel that I've discovered a real treasure--an author of good, gripping suspense fiction that will actually build you up morally and spiritually, instead of tearing you down. I thoroughly enjoyed The Wheel Spins and recommend it to everyone in need of a paperback pick-me-up.

Find The Wheel Spins on Amazon or Project Gutenberg Australia.

The Wheel Spins was filmed as The Lady Vanishes, by Alfred Hitchcock. Read my review of the movie here. Also be aware that The Wheel Spins is most commonly available under the title The Lady Vanishes these days, so be sure to search your library or bookseller for both titles!


Rachel Heffington said...

I feel as if I need to read her books now. I want to say again how pleased I am to have found you and Vintage Novels...you are constantly broadening my pool of authors.

Kim Marsh said...

I definitely feel that I should read this one. I can't imagine why I haven't seen the film either(despite an old friends uncle having a role). Thanks for the reviews. By the way do I get the impression that you don't think cricket a serious matter? And you Australian.
Sincerely Kim

Suzannah said...

Rachel, your comment gives me that glowy ah-my-work-here-is-done feeling. Having been an inveterate book-recommender all my life, it's such a pleasure to meet someone who likes book recommendations ;).

Kim, alas! I don't think Aussie Rules football a serious matter either, an opinion liable to get me lynched one of these days.

Christina Baehr said...


Another great thing about White is that she doesn't do stock characters. I'm amazed at her effortless facility for sketching rich characters in a few sentences.

I'm working on a blog post about her. With my thumbs. Usually at 3.30 am while feeding twins. It may take awhile.

Christina Baehr said...

Of the other ones available on PGA, go for Fear Stalks the Village, Wax, and most of all A Step in the Dark, which is just so smart and satisfying.
She Faded into Air is a bit of a mess. Cheese is a tense little short story. And of course Some Must Watch is probably her masterpiece.

Unknown said...

I saw the recent Masterpiece Mystery version of The Lady Vanishes, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Have you seen it?

Suzannah said...

>I'm working on a blog post about her. With my thumbs. Usually at 3.30 am while feeding twins. It may take awhile.

Christina, have I mentioned that I want to be like you when I grow up? :D

You keep working on that post, I'm looking forward to it!

Emma, no, I haven't seen it, but thanks for the tip! I wonder if it's more like an adaptation of the story, or a remake of the Hitchcock film?

hopeinbrazil said...

Thank you for pointing out this new (to me) author. I am fascinated by the "Christian-ness" of many detective/mystery novels. Just one example is what P.D. James has written about the police inspector being a substitute for a priest (when the villain confesses). Intriguing!

Suzannah said...

Well, there are a lot of great Christian names in detective/mystery writing, aren't there? Chesterton and Sayers to begin with. I hope you'll enjoy Ethel Lina White!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...